When the No. 13 Michigan State Spartans (17-3, 6-1) and the No. 7 Indiana Hoosiers (17-2, 5-1) meet on Sunday at Assembly Hall, there won’t be much at stake except for a top-spot in the toughest conference in basketball, and a boatload of confidence, as both teams are in the midst of hectic schedules.
The Spartans are coming off two massive nail-biting victories over Ohio State and Wisconsin, and three out of their next four opponents include: Illinois, a descending but solid Minnesota squad, and the #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines.
The Hoosiers are looking to get back to their dominant ways after a disappointing loss to Wisconsin at home on Jan. 15. Indiana has a very difficult four game stretch of their own ahead, as they play at Purdue, host Michigan, at Illinois and at Ohio State.
Michigan State has been on a tear as of late, winning six straight, and Sunday’s game will be their first crack at a top-10 opponent since their loss to then No. 9 Minnesota to open the Big Ten season.
Since that loss, Michigan State has had some players really step up, and others step down.
1. Adreian Payne
Since entering Big Ten play MSU junior big man Adreian Payne has been one of the most important pieces of the Spartans success. Payne, who spent the first five Big Ten games coming off the bench, is now in the starting lineup and playing along side Derrick Nix. During this six-game winning streak Payne is averaging 10. 5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and has a shooting percentage of 64 percent. Also, the big man has been knocking down three-pointers and mid-range jumpers similar to that of former MSU big men Goran Suton, Draymond Green and Paul Davis.
2. Keith “Finish Him!” Appling
Coming into the season there was a question of who would be that “go-to” guy for the Spartans, and after some key buckets and crucial free throws, junior guard Keith Appling has happily accepted that role. In the Spartans 62-59 victory over Iowa, Appling scored six points in the final two minutes. Similarly, in the Spartans 59-56 victory over Ohio State, the junior scored six points in the final minute, and in the two-point victory over Wisconsin, Appling had nine of his 19 in the second-half.
1. Denzel Valentine
The freshman from Lansing, Mich. who got off to a pretty hot start to begin his college basketball career finally came down to Earth and started playing like… well, a freshman. Since the loss to Minnesota, Valentine has only scored double-digits once (11 vs. Purdue), and has committed as many turnovers (13) as assists. Valentine is the victim of Payne’s solid performances, as he was the one demoted to the bench in order for Payne to be entered into the starting lineup.
Key to Victory
Nix and Payne vs. Cody Zeller
With the lack of bench production as of late, Payne and Nix will need to play smart and efficient if the Spartans have any chance of winning on Sunday. The MSU duo will need to do everything in their power to control the paint against Indiana’s Cody Zeller who has been filling up the stat sheet.
Zeller is averaging 15.9 points and 8.4 in the last five games, and has continued to prove why he will be a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft next year if he leaves school early.
With the inexperience of backup big men Alex Gauna (who is questionable with he flu) and true freshman Matt Costello, it’s vital that Nix and Payne don’t get in foul trouble early. Also, efficiency on the offensive end from both is very important. It seems like MSU is at it’s best when the two big fellas get confidence on offense early, so if the guards can get them easy baskets to start the game it will be a good day for the green and white. Nix and Payne are both solid passers, so it’s important that the Spartans play inside-out to keep the double-team away. However, that means that MSU guards will need to be more efficient shooting the ball which is something that hasn’t happened as of late.
What to Watch For
Gary Harris vs. Indiana Hoosier Fans
Michigan State star freshman Gary Harris won’t receive a warm welcome home from the Hoosier fans on Sunday. Harris, who was heavily recruited by Indiana, chose to play for Michigan State during his senior year in high school, and the fans haven’t forgot. Expect to hear massive amounts of “Boo’s” from all over Assembly Hall when the freshman from Fishers, Ind. touches the ball, and it will be interesting to see if Harris lets the crowd get in his head. The freshman had the best offensive game of his career in a similar situation going against Purdue at home (also heavily recruited by the Boilermakers) where he scored 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Playing at a hostile environment is MUCH different than playing at home, but against Purdue, Harris played as if he had a chip on his shoulder, and hopefully for MSU he has that same determination on Sunday.
Michigan State is going to slow the game down and play identical to how they did against Wisconsin (which was like Wisconsin). You can’t go wrong with that, right? The Badgers beat Indiana at home, and Michigan State has proven that they can close games out late. It’s going to be a nail-biter (as is every MSU game), but I think the Spartans will close it out.